Our Urban Living Room

Our Urban Living Room - Learning from Copenhagen has been published as the catalogue to the current exhibition of the same title at the Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen. The exhibition continues until the 8th January 2017. 

The book is not far short of 500 pages and is packed with photographs and drawings about the work of Dan Stubbergaard and his team at COBE with a dialogue between Stubbergaard and the Copenhagen planner and author Jan Gehl and, in the middle of the book, there is an interesting and revealing discussion between Stubbergaard and his contemporary, the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.

The layout and form of the book is interesting because it adopts some of the ways that material is now presented on the internet ... so there are various levels of information, extended captions and spotlighting of important ideas that lead you somewhere else and themes that reappear but not within a rigid narrative.

It is a brilliant exercise in communicating complex ideas - so there are graphics with several sequences of drawings that show how solutions evolved and there are simple graphics to show what is actually a complex process to draw out of the confusion of a complicated place the key ideas that might not be immediately obvious … so for the square above the station at Nørreport it is about actually understanding how people really do cut across the space or where they leave their bikes or for the recently-completed development of Krøyers Plads the drawings show how the orientation of historic warehouse buildings along the harbour and the architectural vocabulary of these earlier buildings inspired the final form and orientation of three new blocks of apartments on two sides of an existing basin of the harbour. 

 
 

the model of the square above the railway station at Nørreport in the exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre

 

There is a sequence of drawings for Krøyers Plads that COBE publish on their internet site that did not make it into the book or the exhibition but they show how the architects look at an extensive area - a surprisingly extensive area - to understand the wider existing urban context of their new buildings.  So for Krøyers Plads they not only looked at how the harbour immediately around the site had developed but also looked at the whole length of Strandgade - the spine of the harbour side of Christianshavn. There is an incredible mix of complicated buildings along Strandgade but COBE simplified the streetscape to the outline shape and the orientation of the buildings, stripped of detail, and by doing that revealed an underlying order and a potential new relationship between one end of the street and the other … a relationship between a tall narrow building - an important 18th-century church tower and its spire, and the space of a square in front of the church - that is at one end of Strandagde and at the other end a new arrangement of a new public square they are creating at Krøyers Plads with the tall end elevation of one of the new apartment buildings as a key element.

 

a sequence of drawings to explain the arrangement of the three new apartment buildings and the new public square at Krøyers Plads from the COBE on-line site

 
 

In the exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre there is a wall of CGI images that appear to have been annotated and doodled on in the course of a discussion and on one view of a rather different proposal for the Krøyers Plads buildings you can see a felt-tipped sketch of this Strandgade axis

At one point in the book Stubbergaard says, "I believe we have come to read architecture" but he also understands just how important it is to explain that to people … to explain what they, as architects, are trying to do and why. The book tries and succeeds in showing his thought process as his ideas evolved for certain projects and it is clear that in a discussion Stubbegaard wants to take the listener or the reader to the same conclusion for the same reasons … what appears to be important to him is the idea of architecture by consensus.

He is inspired by architecture and appears to be exceptionally good at explaining his views and ideas and at one point in an interview he talks about how much benefit could come from teaching about architecture in schools.

Headings for the separate sections of the book and the sections of the exhibition are revealing so they are:

  • From Infrastructure to Public Space
  • Culture as a Social Engine
  • Transformation as Resource
  • A City for Kids
  • Architectural Democracy
  • Copenhagen Tomorrow

The book ends with an important and revealing interview with Stubbergaard with Marc-Christopher Wagner where he explains that architects have to have confidence:

"As architects, we must be able to interpret, moderate, to be communicative and able to pull together a lot of people. Architecture today is so much more than drafting lines and building models. It demands enormous social skills, both internally and externally. We have to be able to manage enormous budgets, coordinate complex logistics and physical situations on society's behalf."

It is that last phrase … "on society's behalf" … that is probably crucial if you are trying to understand what COBE are trying to do through their work.

When asked if COBE has a signature style Dan Stubbergaard replied that the main characteristic of their projects is that "they are not recognisable" … and goes on to explain that the idea of iconic buildings is foreign to him.

Is that completely true? The conversion of The Silo in the Nordhavn area of Copenhagen will see a well-known feature of the dock skyline become a key building of the area that will be fairly iconic and the back catalogue is putting together some buildings with distinct family features ... the piling up of small units of a domestic scale to form child-friendly schools at Frederiksvej Kindergarten and Kids City or the stacking up of large metal boxes at Library Nordvest or the Danish Rock Museum.

What comes across so well in the book is the importance of the city itself in Stubbergaard's work so hence the title of the exhibition and the book. He explains that, "Copenhagen is our laboratory, our playground. This is the place where our architecture was allowed to unfold and develop. Knowing the city, the culture, Copenhageners, is a prerequisite for experiment and new thinking, for being bold, even radical in the creative sense of the word."

He has a deep understanding of the city - a sense of the place, an understanding of the history and the people of the city that formed the buildings and how those buildings influence the way that everyone lives so he looks at how people use their built environment and is clearly focused on how the city will influence what the next generation does next.  

Although he is a designer of innovative modern buildings he also understands the importance of learning from the past. He is "personally very interested in historic buildings, because they reflect their times and contemporary society" but is also refreshingly honest about how much control architects have over how their buildings will be used after they hand them across. "What an architect imagines, drafts and plans is one thing, but life itself is powerful and unpredictable. It will take over a building."

So he has an awareness not only about how people actually do move around the city and use its buildings and its public spaces but he is working hard to take his observations and his perceptions and ideas forward to use new buildings and new public spaces to improve the way people can live in the city, to merge as a whole "function and surroundings" which are his "particular source of inspiration."

As Stubbergaard explains in the forward, the book is a 'compendium' of what these architects have learnt from their urban experiments in Copenhagen.

 

Our Urban Living Room, Learning from Copenhagen

Arvinius + Orfeus Publishing AB

published 2016 - ISBN 978-91-87543-39-5

COBE